For three months, nobody — apart from a few terrorists — knew that House Number 43 in New Runda estate was a bomb factory.
Inside this secure compound, the gang planned one of the deadliest attacks on Kenyan soil.
For five years, and without the knowledge of intelligence agencies, the terrorists operated as businessmen, philanthropists and tourists.
Their kingpin was Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaeda, a network of militant Islamic extremists that emerged from the ashes of the war in Afghanistan.
On the morning of August 7, 1998, the terrorists drove out of their Runda house.
In the lead car was Fazul Mohammed, better known as Harun, while the second, a Toyota Dyna, was carrying a bomb.
GROUP HID INTENTIONS
It was driven by Jihad Mohammed Ali (aka Azzam), with Mohammed Rashid Daoud Al-Owhali in the passenger seat.
In Nairobi, and under the cover of Asma Ltd, an al-Qaeda company established in 1983 by Khalid Fawwaz, the group hid its intentions.
Nobody noticed that this company had been transferred to al-Qaeda military commander, Abu al Banshiri.
The group also registered an outfit known as Tanzanite King — a cover to retaliate against the US for Operation Restore Hope in Somalia.
According to the registration documents, Asma Ltd was an import-export company. It opened an office in Nairobi.
Had another militant — Mohammed Sadeek — Odeh not arrived in Kenya in 1994, chances are that the East African terrorist cell would not have taken shape at the pace it did.
Odeh was the ideal businessman. Coast hotel owners and traders knew him as the fisherman who operated a six-foot seven-tonne fibre glass boat.
It was the income of this business that became the lifeline of the struggling Kenyan cell, which had already closed its Nairobi office and sold furniture.
The boat had been delivered to Odeh, a Palestinian from Jordan, by Banshiri and al-Qaeda trainer Muhamed Atef.
It did good business and acted as a hideout of cell members.
Also joining this team was an American jihadist known as Wadih El Haji, who masqueraded as a precious stone dealer in Kenya and Tanzania. El Haji, a Lebanese-American and University of Louisiana graduate, was to run the Tanzanite King business while acting as Osama bin Laden’s contact in the Kenyan cell.
Within the cell, they called him “The Manager” — perhaps because of his organisational acumen. His deputy was Fazul, the Comoros national.
REGISTERED AN NGO
Fazul and the Lebanese had also registered an NGO, Help Africa People, which was to be used as the official al-Qaeda cover in Kenya.
With all those organisations, the stage had been set for the raid.
Initially, Help Africa People had been registered in Germany and that gave Fazul the best cover in Kenya.
Fazul was involved in the 1993 downing of two US helicopters in Mogadishu; an event that led to the withdrawal of American troops from Somalia.
After a brief sojourn in the Comoros, where he married Halima, 17, Fazul arrived in Nairobi and rented an apartment.
From here, they could all communicate using codenames as detectives would later find out: TNT and detonator cords were known as “tools”, grenades were “potatoes”, while fake travel documents were “goods”.
They were the least of suspects and even invited another operative — Mustafa Ahmed — to open a branch of bin Laden’s Taba Investment Company.
Officially, Fazul was working for an NGO and, unknown to security forces, his cell had links to another NGO, Mercy International Relief Agency, run by Safar al Hawali, and the Nairobi branch of Haramayn Foundation.
With all these contacts, Fazul ferried cash to cell members with ease. On the ground, his NGO’s mission was to deliver emergency humanitarian assistance — food, medicine, clothing and shelter — to the needy. It was through these outfits that the bomb-making material was gathered.
But acquiring the materials was slowed down in May 1996 when Banshiri died aboard MV Bukoba, the ferry that sank 56 kilometres off Mwanza, killing more than 1,000.
With Banshiri’s death, Fazul became the principal contact for the Kenyan mission and moved to Nairobi, where he lived with El Haji’s family and served as his assistant at the NGO.
Meanwhile in Afghanistan, another man, Rashid Daoud Al-Owhali, had just completed training in explosives, hijacking and kidnapping, assassination and intelligence techniques.
Three fake passport were sent to Baku, Azerbaijan, to enable Al-Owhali travel to Kenya and drive the vehicle with the bomb.
In February 1997, El Haji met bin Laden to brief him of the operation.
On August 1, 1998, Abu Mariam, the key al-Qaeda commander in East Africa, issued an order to all al-Qaeda personnel to leave Kenya by August 6.
The US embassy on the junction of Moi and Haile Selassie avenues was vulnerable. The targeted basement parking was manned by an unarmed guard and a manually operated drop bar.
On the Saturday before the attack, Odeh the fisherman, met Ally Msalam who ordered him to “get out of here!”
BOOKED ROOM 24
On August 2, the proposed bomber arrived at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, took a taxi to Ramada Hotel, Eastleigh and booked Room 24.
He called someone in Pakistan to confirm his arrival. That day, Fazul drove to Ramada and picked up his guest.
He paid the bills even though the visitor had not stayed overnight. They then left for Runda.
On the morning of the attack, Al-Owhali, dressed in black shoes, blue jeans, a white short-sleeved shirt and a blue jacket, put four stun grenades on his belt and a pistol in his jacket pocket.
With Azzam, he boarded the bomb vehicle and left for the US embassy.